Project Canterbury

Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak

By Harriette McDougall

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882.
New York: E. & J. B. Young, 1882.

Chapter V. The Church and the School

AS soon as we removed to College Hill, the building of the church began. On the 28th August, 1850, a few days after the return of the expedition against the pirates, the summit of a rising ground about two hundred yards from the house having been cleared and levelled, a large shed was built over the ground, which the sailors of H.M.S. Albatross, and our workmen, adorned with gay flags and green boughs.

A little procession left our house, the rajah walking first, dressed in full uniform as Governor of Labuan, and Suboo, the Malay executioner, holding a large yellow satin umbrella over his head, as is the custom on all state occasions, for yellow is the royal colour in Borneo; then my husband, in surplice and hood, the English residents, naval officers, and, last, a crowd of Malays and Chinese followed, to witness the ceremony of laying the first great block of wood in the foundation of St. Thomas's Church. [45/46] After prayers had been read, the rajah lowered the great sleeper into its place, and we all returned home. From that day the church began to rise out of the earth with the same seeming magic as the house had done. It was entirely built of wood--all the beams, rafters, and posts of the hard balean-wood, and the roof covered with balean shingles, like the house. The planking was a cedar-coloured wood, and all the arches and mouldings were finished like cabinet-work, so that it was both handsome and durable. The ornamental pillars were first made of polished nibong palms; but in a few years these had to be cut away, as they were full of white ants, and hard wood substituted. The building of this little church was most interesting to us. When my husband was at Singapore for a short time in 1849, he had the pulpit, reading-desk, a carved wooden eagle, and the chairs made there; also a coloured glass east window was contrived, with the Sarawak flag for a centre light. This pleased the Malays; indeed, they admired the house and church immensely, and always assured us that they knew we could not have built either, unless inspired by good antoos (spirits).

The baptismal font was a huge clam-shell, large enough to dip an infant in, if desired; and this natural font was adopted in all the churches afterwards built at Dyak stations--at Lundu, at Banting, Quop River.

The church bell was a difficult matter. Nothing larger than a ship bell could be found in the straits. [46/47] At last, a Javanese at Sarawak said he could cast a bell large enough if he had the metal; so Frank bought a hundredweight of broken gongs--there is a great deal of silver in gong metal--and with these the bell was cast. Then an inscription had to be put round the rim--"Gloria in excelsis Deo," in large letters; and the date, Sir James Brooke's name on one side, and F. T. McDougall on the other. It was a great success, and was safe in the little belfry before the church was consecrated, in February, 1851. I do not know whether this bell is now cracked, but it has worked very hard from that day--two services every week-day, and four on Sunday, to say nothing of extra occasions. Before long, we found a gilder who could adorn the reredos. There were seven compartments at the east end: in the centre one was a gilt cross, and in the others, the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, in English, Malay, and Chinese. The gilder was a Chinese catechumen, and was very anxious to do it well; but he knew nothing of English letters, so each letter had to be cut in paper, and he traced it on the wooden panel. It was necessary to watch him narrowly, or he put the letters upside down! Such are the difficulties of making churches in the jungle. All this took some time to complete. I had a very severe illness in November, 1850; and when, about Christmas, I was able to sit in the verandah, the progress of the church was my great amusement, for it was quite near enough to watch from the house.

[48] In August, 1850, a great influx of Chinese came to Sarawak. There was a war at Sambas, the principal Dutch settlement in Borneo, between the Chinese, who were friendly to the Dutch, and who were living at Pernankat, and the Montrado Chinese, who, with the Dyaks of the country, rebelled against the Dutch. The Montrados beat the Pernankat Chinese, and they fled from the place, carrying with them their wives and children, and as much property as they could cram into their boats. The boats were overladen, and many of them perished at sea, but some reached Tangong Datu. On the 26th of August, four hundred of these poor creatures arrived at Sarawak, saying there were three thousand more starving on the sands at Datu, who would follow as fast as they could; and, in course of time, most of them did find their way up the river, although those in charge of the Government (the rajah was at Labuan) tried to persuade them to make a town for themselves at Santubong (one of the mouths of the river). A few of them did settle at Santubong, but every day brought boats full of Chinamen into the place. The rajah fed these poor people for months with rice, and gave them tools that they might clear the ground and make gardens in the jungle. At first, before they could build themselves houses, the whole place seemed upset by them. Many lived in their boats on the river; every shed and workshop in the town was full. One night Frank walked into the church, to see no one was stealing planks [48/49] from the unfinished building. All was quiet, but by a stray moonbeam he perceived that one end of the church, already boarded, was full of mosquito curtains, and they as full of sleeping Chinamen. Such a thing could not be allowed--nails knocked into the polished walls to tie up the curtains, tobacco perfuming the place, to say nothing of sparks to light the pipes, and a considerable allowance of bugs which Chinese people always carry about with them. Frank jumped straight into the middle of the muslin curtains, with a shout; and amidst a hubbub of tongues, "yaw-yaw" and laughter, bundled them all out into the workmen's shed close by, where they might sleep in peace. It occurred to my husband that some of these Chinese would be glad to have their children brought up with the seven little orphans we had already, so he went to Aboo, the Chinese magistrate, and offered to take ten children into our house to be brought up as Christians, baptized, and educated for ten years. The Chinese value education, and were very glad to give them to us. I shall never forget sitting in the porch one morning to receive my new family. Neither parents nor children could speak Malay. They walked up the stairs, bringing a little boy or girl, nodded and smiled and put the child's hand into mine, as much as to say, "There, take it." One of our Chinese servants then explained to them what we could do for the child, and that it must remain with us until grown up. That day we took Salion, Sunfoon, Chinzu, Queyfat, Assin, [49/50] Umque, Achin, boys; Achong, Moukmoy, Poingzu, girls. The English nurse we had brought with us to Sarawak had married Stahl, the carpenter, of whom I spoke before, and Mrs. Stahl became the matron of the school when we moved to College Hill, and had these ten Chinese children as well as the orphans to care for. We were very busy sewing for them, with a Chinese tailor to help. Blue jackets and trousers for week-days, and black trousers and white jackets for Sundays, had to be made at once. The girls wore trousers as well as the boys, only wider, and their jackets reached to the knee.

At the end of a week they were all clean and neat. Their heads were shaved every Saturday, and their long tails freshly plaited up with skeins of black or red strong silk, made on purpose. At first a barber came to do this, but soon the elder boys learnt to do it, and it was a regular Saturday business. These ten children soon learnt to speak Malay. Then we took five more, and after that one or two as circumstances threw them in our way. The school at last numbered forty-five, but there was not room in the mission-house for so many; we did not get beyond thirty the first year of the school.

I scarcely think thirty English children could have been so easily reduced to order as these little Chinese. School must have been paradise to them after the hardships they had undergone, and that perhaps made it easier to please them; besides, the Chinese readily submit to rule and method. The [50/51] day was laid out for them. They rose at half-past five when the day dawned; after a bath in a pond in the grounds, they had a slice of rice-pudding with treacle on it, and then went to church for morning prayers. By seven o'clock they were all at lessons in the big room--such a buzzing and curious singsong of Chinese words--until nine, when the breakfast took place; rice, of course, and a sort of curry of vegetables, also a great dish of fish, either salt or fresh; a little tea for the elder children, no milk or sugar, and water for the rest. They soon learnt to sing their grace before and after meals.

The same kind of meal was repeated at five o'clock, but on Sunday they had pork curried instead of fish, and on festivals chickens. I taught these children to sing from the first. The Chinese are not musical generally, and some of them found the sounds of do, re, mi, very difficult to master, but we had very nice singing in church in time; and when a schoolmaster came who knew plenty of songs, glees, and rounds, the children learnt them quickly, and were often sent for to sing to the rajah and other guests when they came to dinner.

It used to startle strangers to hear "The Hardy Norseman," "The Cuckoo," and such-like songs from the lips of little Chinese boys. Every Saturday evening they came to the house to practise the hymns and chants for Sunday; I had an harmonium in the dining-room. On these occasions they all had a cup of tea and slice of cake, and used to look at the picture newspapers which had come from [51/52] England the last mail. They were very intelligent boys. It was necessary they should learn Malay and English as well as Chinese, and of course arithmetic, geography, and the usual rudiments of learning. I have often watched the Chinese writing-lesson: it seemed the most difficult branch of their education--one complicated character, something like a five-barred gate, representing a variety of sounds as well as meanings; but our little fellows learnt it all. They had a Chinese master as well as an English, and they soon spoke English as well as we could desire. My husband took the greatest interest in this school. When the children first came he taught them games and made them playthings, and they were always about him. Whenever we went anywhere by boat a crew of boys was added to the rowers. They soon learnt to use their paddles well, and at the public boat-races, on New Year's Day, pulled their own boat in the race and sometimes Avon it. When my husband became Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak, he always took some of the schoolboys with him in his visits to the different stations. They helped the church services by their singing, and had their especial chums among the Dyak Christian boys in the different tribes. So many boys passed through the school during the twenty years we took an interest in it, that I cannot even remember all of them. Some are now catc-chists among the Dyak tribes; many entered the service of the Government or the Merchant Company as clerks; some went to Singapore and found [52/53] employment there. I know of only one who has as yet been ordained, but perhaps that time has scarcely yet arrived in Sarawak. It is difficult for Malays or Dyaks to look up to a Chinaman sufficiently to make him their minister: they arc less clever than the Chinese, but look down upon them nevertheless--the Malays, because the Chinese are the workers, and they the gentlemen; the Dyaks, I suppose, because they gave them such a thrashing in 1857. One good consequence of the Chinese school was, that it attracted the attention of the parents towards Christianity, and they presented themselves as catechumens. There were many difficulties with the languages, for the Chinese at Sarawak were not all of the same tribe, and could not understand one another. However, after a while a Chinese professor arrived at Sarawak, bringing his wife and family with him. In those days the women were forbidden to emigrate with their husbands, but Sing Sing put his wife into a large chest with air-holes at the top, and brought her safely from China. The Bishop employed this man, who was well educated, to make translations, and to interpret what he said to the Chinese, so there were soon Bible classes at our house every Wednesday evening. Sing Sing became an inquirer himself while translating the gospel to others. He was soon able to hold cottage lectures in the town, and after some years the Bishop had the happiness to ordain him as minister to his people. There was a large congregation of Chinese at the Sunday [53/54] services before we left, and it was a good proof of the sincerity of these converts, that while all their heathen countrymen worked at their trades on Sunday as well as other days, our Christians spent their Sunday in worship and rest, which no doubt was an advantage to their health as well as their growth in grace.

At Christmas they always shared in our feasting. We killed an ox, and all the Christians had beef for their dinner, as well as all the queer things they delight in.

In January, 1851, the Church of St. Thomas at Kuching was consecrated by Bishop Wilson, of Calcutta. On the afternoon of the 18th, I was returning from church, and mounting the flight of steps which led to the porch of the house, I saw a large steamer turn the corner of the Pedungen Reach and anchor above the fort. It was the Semiramis bringing the Bishop, Archdeacon Pratt and Mrs. Pratt, the Rev. H. Moule from Singapore, Dr. Beale, the Bishop's physician, and Mr. Fox from Bishop's College. This party, escorted by Frank, who rushed home to dress himself in black (his usual attire being grey flannels and a white muslin cassock), very soon marched into the house, exclaiming with pleasure at the wreaths of white jessamine growing over the stairs, and the fresh air of the hill. We had so lately settled in the house that it was not half furnished, but we gave up our rooms to our guests and stowed ourselves in an empty corner. I remember the satisfaction with which [54/55] Mrs. Stahl produced the remains of the Christmas plum-padding, and the comfort it was to have a joint of venison in the house. Dinner was soon on the table, and immediately afterwards the Bishop read prayers and retired to his room. We all went into the library, where we had tea and talk. It was very refreshing to have an English lady to speak to, and Mrs. Pratt was so tall and fair that everybody admired her, especially the Malays, who used to say that it was sufficient pleasure to look at her throat only.

The natives used to flock into the house every evening to see the Tuan Padre besar (the great priest), and all the new-comers. At half-past five a.m. the Bishop's bell used to ring for his servants to dress him, and bring his tea. The whole house was astir then. The Indian servants of the party slept in the verandahs, and seemed to me to talk all night.

The next day was Sunday, but the church was not cleared out for consecration, and most of the fittings had come from Singapore in the Semiramis, and could not be got out on Saturday night. So morning and evening prayers were as usual in the dining-room, and what with the officers of the Semiramis, the English of the place, the school and our home party, the room was very full. The children sang with all their might, and were much interested with the visitors. The Bishop and Archdeacon Pratt preached morning and afternoon. On Wednesday the church was ready. Mrs. Stahl and [55/56] I were up before dawn, covering hassocks with Turkey red cotton. The church was tiled, but platforms of wood, covered with mats, which were a present from Mr. and Mrs. Stahl, were placed on the tiles, and the chairs just arrived by Semiramis stood on them. We afterwards had to clear the platforms away--they became full of white ants; but they looked very well at first.

When all was ready, Captain Brooke and all the principal English inhabitants met the Bishop at the church door, and presented a petition that he would consecrate the building. He then entered, and walked up and down the church repeating psalms, etc. Then came morning service; afterwards, the Bishop preached, and as he was very energetic and struck the desk with his hand, our gentle Datu Bandar thought he was angry, and slipped quickly out of church. There was a confirmation of a Chinese teacher and my little maid Susan after the celebration of Holy Communion, and then, after three hours and a half service, we returned home. The next morning, early, the Bishop consecrated the burial-ground. He was carried round it in a chair, for he was unable to walk much; and though he was a hale old man of seventy-two, his many years' residence at Calcutta had, I imagine, spoilt his walking powers.

He was very kind and friendly to us all, and admired the church very much. His visit was a boon to the mission. It impressed the native mind with the importance Christians attach to their [56/57] churches and to public worship. When our church bell called us to prayers twice every day, the Mahometans revived the daily muezzin at the mosque; and the sight of the public practice of religion amongst us quickened the Malays in the performance of their own religious rites, and from that time there were many more pilgrims to Mecca from Sarawak.

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